“An After-Dinner’s Sleep” by Stanley Middleton

Stanley Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for Holiday. 

On a jaunt to London, I discovered his books at Waterstones. I wondered, Why haven’t I heard of him before? But Middleton’s work is not widely acclaimed in the U.S.   A critic at The New York Times in 1989 called Entry into Jerusalem a “tight-lipped novel by the prolific British writer” and further said “This mannered repression leaves much space in the novel for the author to fill with tedious detail.”

My favorite novel of the year!

It is exactly my thing!  I adore British repression. I love Anita Brookner, of whom Middleton slightly reminds me, Kazuo Ishiguro, and A. S. Byatt.  In fact, these British writers represent the pinnacle of 20th-century British literature to me.

It is true that Middleton’s remarkable novel, An After-Dinner’s Sleep, which was published in 1986, is quite buttoned-up. And I love it!  The protagonist, Alistair Murray, a 65-year-old widower, has a lot of time on his hands.  He loves music and plays Bach on the piano, reads widely, and takes long walks.  He is a retired Director of Education who was once a powerful man in the Midlands. Now he must shape his days by routine activities.  And he is sitting alone one night when Eleanor Franks, with whom he had a brief sexual affair years ago, shows up at his house.

Middleton’s writing is brilliant but not showy.  The first exchange between Alistair and Eleanor subtly reveals their disparate characters.

‘I’m not interrupting anything important?’

‘You’re not interrupting anything. I was sitting here reading, but if you questioned me I’d have some difficulty recalling what it was. There’s nothing I want on the telly, and the Prom’s full of stuff I don’t want to hear. When I was young Friday night was Beethoven.’

‘And Amami,’ she said. ‘A shampoo.’ She giggled, but her face straightened at once.

Eleanor is an impulsive socialite lacking compelling interests. She claims she has dropped in because she is disturbed by a news item.  But  it becomes clear that it was an impulse, perhaps born of loneliness.  Eleanor, too, is a widow.

Middleton’s quiet descriptions of daily life fascinate me. Every word is carefully chosen, and the characterization of Alistair reveals a capable man who is trying to find his way alone in old age.  He misses his wife, Janet, an ambitious woman who pushed him into his successful career, which he is convinced was over-valued and riddled with mistakes.  He escapes self-deprecating rumination  by spending time with his son, Sebastian, a famous TV journalist, and his wife Francesca, a lawyer.

Eleanor is an important character, but not the center of his life. He is too cautious; she is too flighty. Alistair and Eleanor begin an off-again, on-again friendship.  She drinks too much, invites him over to help entertain her older sister, who is dying of cancer, and accompanies him to a classical music concert where Alistair is uplifted and she is obviously bored.  Quite often she takes off on impulse to stay with friends in Portugal or France.  But Alistair is used to solitude, and he disciplines himself to study various subjects.  He is writing an article about education, which is not going well; Middleton’s description of writing gone amok is pitch-perfect.  (Haven’t we all been there?)

I love Middleton’s wit.  When Eleanor’s sick sister retires to bed with Mansfield Park, Eleanor asks Alistair, “Would you choose Mansfield Park if you were dying?”  (No, I would not!)

And the title comes from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:

Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep
Dreaming on both.

A brilliant novel!

6 thoughts on ““An After-Dinner’s Sleep” by Stanley Middleton

  1. So is this the kind of novel that would be liked by British people — like say from the 19th century James, Howells, Wharton? I admit to me this third year of giving prizes to US people is dismaying. I don’t see anyone suggesting we give a Pulitzer or National Book Award (re-named?) to UK and commonwealth people. Worse: when I went to a book club this Thursday and they announced the short list, all they were interested in were the books by Americans. They began by talking of these. I’ve no doubt it was a commercial move by the Mann funders.

    I do teach the Booker and now will choose only from those listed before this change — indeed I prefer the older books … pre-2000 or so.

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    • I love English literature! Yes, I, too, am disappointed by the shortlist; it is absurd that two Americans have made it. It has really changed the prize and made it even less interesting for Americans! Richard Powers is very good and I’ve heard good things about Rachel Kushner, but it really has taken away from learing about novels we’d never have heard of.

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  2. Kat,
    I am in your “too many books” club, and yet I had to immediately add this to my list. I am a huge Anita Brookner fan. Luckily, I work at a university, so have access to multiple college libraries- and ordered this already.

    You recently sent me a Nina Bawden book that I had won. I noticed your return address- I graduated from Drake, and my mother in law lives in Des Moines, so we visit a few times a year. I truly enjoy your blog- I subscribe to many, but you are most in sync with my reading tastes. Thank you!
    Julie Zeller

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    • University libraries are fantastic! I do love Brookner, and this particular book was Brooknerish. It’s great that you have access.

      Oh my goodness, you’re the only person I know from online who has been to Des Moines! The Drake campus is lovely. One year my husband took me to the Drake Relays, which I remember nothing about but there was a lot of running!

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